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As we all look back at the past year, it feels like it’s flown by — but also that time has warped in a way and it feels like we’ve been stuck in this pandemic for much longer than we expected.
So here’s my 2021 year in review and an update on whether I managed to meet my goals. I hope this helps you with your own annual review, and feel free to share your achievements and lessons learned in the comments so we can all celebrate (and/or commiserate) together.
- A year of physical and mental health issues — for all of us. You are not alone!
- Joanna Penn — books for authors
- The Creative Penn website and podcast
- The Creative Future
- J.F. Penn — thrillers, dark fantasy, crime, horror
- Books and Travel
- Health, travel, walking
- Financial goals
I hope that you can look back and celebrate whatever you have achieved — even if that is just making it through alive!
Writing remains for all of us a haven for our thoughts, not just words for publication — so I hope you have some time to step back, think and write about the year that is almost over.
If you’d like to share your thoughts, please do leave a comment, or blog about it and tweet me the link. I’ll be back soon with my plans and goals for 2021.
Ever the optimist, I wrote on 1 Jan, 2021: “I’m expecting it to be at least a full pandemic year — from March 2020 to March 2021, but I am really hoping to be back in the world in the second half of this year.”
I also intended 2021 “to be a year of expansion — creatively in terms of what I write, mentally in terms of the things I learn about, and physically, in terms of my health and where I travel (once we're out of the woods with the virus, of course.)”
Well, this year did not turn out as we all hoped, did it?!
Part of me doesn’t want to do this round-up because I don’t really want to relive most of the year. But I’ve always found it incredibly useful to be accountable to you as my audience, and by looking back, we can be thankful to have made it through — and if you’re reading/listening to this, you have made it through — and hopefully, gain some perspective on what might be possible in the year ahead.
I will talk about some of the creative goals I achieved — and missed — but I want to start with something far more important.
If you’re utterly exhausted and struggling with physical and mental health issues, you’re not alone.
I’ve talked about my various issues on the podcast over the year but essentially, it’s been one of my worst years ever in terms of mental and physical health. I share these things not for sympathy, but in the hope that it helps you if you have felt or are still feeling the same way, because we are certainly not alone.
The UK winter lockdown (6 Jan – mid-March 2021) was brutal. I always have some form of SAD (seasonal affective disorder) but it was compounded by sleep issues, resulting from a combination of age-related hormonal changes and pandemic anxiety.
Sleep issues have been reported across the world during the pandemic (APA, The Lancet), but that doesn’t make it easier for any of us experiencing lack of it. That hasn’t resolved, but my anxiety about not sleeping has lessened, and in fact, I have a sleep psychologist on the show in early January since I have a feeling many of you are struggling with it, too.
Another common pandemic issue is feeling constantly tired, on the edge of fatigue, and almost burned-out from the bad news, uncertainty, and anxiety.
I didn’t really have this in 2020. Yes, the fear was real, but I was able to rally all my energy and go hard in making sure my business would survive. In 2020, I wrote a lot of books, did a lot of marketing, worked super hard — and all that probably contributed to feeling even more tired in 2021!
That kind of energy is unsustainable and as the pandemic grinds on, it grinds us all down. We might feel a flurry of hope at some good news, and then it sinks away again as the next wave hits and we can’t help but doomscroll, looking for just that tiny bit of news that might change things.
Then, I contracted the Delta variant in mid-July 2021 along with a ton of other people in the UK. (Yes, I was double-vaxxed. No health or political comments, please!)
I didn’t experience breathing issues and didn’t need hospitalization, so I am grateful for the vaccine — but it was still a very difficult few weeks of sickness (the sickest I have ever been) followed by around two and a half months of recovery. I still don’t have my sense of smell back entirely, and I have more difficulty getting my breath on hills that used to be easy. But given that my cousin was in a coma on a ventilator in the first wave, again, I am very grateful for the vaccine.
The physical symptoms of Covid also came with a surprising amount of mental health issues — depression, anxiety, fear of ever getting better, inability to concentrate, weeping — and I’m not sure that has entirely receded. I read Kris Rusch’s book, Writing with Chronic Illness, while I was sick, and I listened to a LOT of audiobooks.
I did walk the St Cuthbert’s Way in October 2021, more on that later, to prove to myself I was physically better and that helped a lot.
Covid also broke my intermittent fasting regime as I could only taste texture and salt, so I lived on sourdough toast, butter and Bovril for several weeks, and then my energy was so low, and I use food for emotional support — so it all fell apart.
Then in late November, we experienced the stress of international travel to Aotearoa New Zealand to visit my mother-in-law who has advanced cancer. I’m writing and recording this from Auckland.
NZ has (mostly) kept Covid out, as they have one of the strictest border control, quarantine, and isolation regimes in the world. It took months to get a slot in MIQ and then began a bureaucratic nightmare, paperwork, vaccine passports — and what I struggled with the most — seven days of quarantine in a room with no opening window, 23.5 hours a day inside that room with only 30 minutes walking slowly clockwise around a carpark, guarded by the military; tested by people in hazmat gear; and generally treated like a virus-vector rather than a human. Even when we made it out, it took several weeks of chasing bureaucracy to get a vaccine passport because we were vaxxed in the UK, which made us second-class citizens for a while.
As a result of all this, I am seriously out of love with travel — which is something I didn’t think I would ever say. More on that to come as well.
I have also learned a lot about acceptance in terms of a limited physical and mental capacity. My upbringing was very much ‘power of positive thinking’ and a Protestant work ethic and sickness was almost a moral weakness. Take some vitamin C tablets and soldier on. But that has been impossible for much of the year — and I raged against it — but then I had to just let it be, and go back to bed and rest. Memento mori indeed.
All of this to say that this has been one of the most difficult years of my life — and I know my life is not as challenging as many others — so if you feel any of this, then you are not alone.
But despite all this, I did manage to do a few things.
Joanna Penn — Books for authors
One of my goals was to write How to Make a Living with your Writing Third Edition — which I did in the first quarter and narrated the audiobook.
I also intended to finish How to Write a Novel, but once again, I opened the Scrivener file several times and just couldn’t get on with it. I have some imposter syndrome around the topic, for sure. After all, Stephen King wrote a book On Writing! It’s also such a dauntingly large subject so I need to pick an angle, but it remains on the To Write list.
The surprise book of the year was The Relaxed Author, which I co-wrote with Mark Leslie Lefebvre — and we both did the audiobook narration.
It sprang out of an interview conversation and then we had so many comments saying it was needed, that we went ahead and wrote the book. We both had to clear our schedules to write it, but I’m glad we did. Lots of you have said it’s been useful in a year when we all needed to relax more.
Luckily, I finished it just before getting Covid and you can listen to us talking about our process and what we learned about each other in episode 575.
In foreign rights, I self-published Your Author Business Plan in German and also licensed some more non-fiction books for authors in French.
I intended to double down on selling direct which I have definitely achieved. There’s more I could do, but I sell ebooks and audiobooks every day from payhip.com/thecreativepenn. You get a good deal, and I get money in my bank account immediately.
I know many of you have used my tutorial on selling direct to set up your own direct sales, so I’m pleased that’s becoming more of a trend for indies.
The Creative Penn Website
In May 2021, Google updated their algorithm around page speed and some other metrics, so I implemented a new theme and some technical backend things on TheCreativePenn.com, one of those tasks that you just have to do sporadically with what is now a 13-year-old site!
You should now find it easier to search if you use the Search Bar on the Start Here page and there are more landing pages and resource pages for the most common things: editors, book cover design, tools for authors, etc.
If you run an author business, your website and email list are assets, just as much as your books. I frequently get offers for this site but of course, it’s not for sale. It is the hub for everything I do online, and it drives significant revenue — and importantly, I control it.
We have to maintain our backlist books, but we also have to maintain our backlist website/s. So this was a business-critical task that just had to be done.
The Creative Penn Podcast
It’s been an epic year for The Creative Penn Podcast with weekly episodes as usual, plus a lot of extra in-between-isodes and futurist shows (69 episodes in 2021 in total).
Thanks to my corporate sponsors and to my patrons at patreon.com/thecreativepenn for continuing to support the show. It helps me financially and also emotionally — particularly in this challenging year.
I did a survey in the last few weeks, so I’ll share the way ahead for the podcast as we head toward episode 700 in my new year goals episode.
The Creative Future
One of my biggest goals for 2021 was to dive deeper into the technological changes that accelerated due to the pandemic — and I said in my 2020 roundup, “I've been bored for a while now, with a feeling of stagnation in the status quo of the publishing industry. But I see things coming on the horizon that we need to prepare for, especially with the acceleration of digital transformation in the pandemic year.”
Things have moved much faster than even I expected, and in fact, much of what was considered futurist is now moving into the present. 2021 certainly ended with a lot more people knowing words like NFTs and metaverse!
I also intended 2021 to be a “year of expansion — creatively in terms of what I write, mentally in terms of the things I learn about, and physically, in terms of my health and where I travel.”
One out of three isn’t bad, as I certainly expanded my understanding of these areas, joined new communities, and have started to grasp how this could all look in the years to come.
My futurist episodes included:
- Blockchain and NFTs — Publishing on blockchain; NFTs for Authors; The Ownership Economy; Creatokia: A World of Digital Originals;
- The metaverse for authors and publishing: Web 3.0, VR, AR, and the Spatial Web — published in August 2021, before Facebook rebranded as Meta in October 2021 and the metaverse hit the news
- Co-writing with AI — Sudowrite; Non-fiction and art; Fiction (trad pub); Fiction (indie); AI-powered creativity
- Digital narration with AI Voices (Deep Zen)
- Plus, an interview with me on techno-optimism!
You can find a round-up of all the episodes as well as a list of AI writing tools, my book and course, The AI-Assisted Author, at www.TheCreativePenn.com/future
I also started putting these futurist elements into action in my creative work and business:
- I’ve incorporated Sudowrite into my process and used it in Tomb of Relics, and now include a Statement of AI usage in my Author’s Note, mainly for transparency reasons. I’ve also worked with Orna Ross at the Alliance of Independent Authors around shaping a submission on AI and intellectual property to the WIPO and the UK government, as well as contributing to the ALLi statement of practical and ethical guidelines around AI for writing
- I published a book on the Ethereum blockchain through BookChain – although I haven’t earned any ETH (or any other crypto-currency — yet!) It was more to test the process, and the marketplace for books on chain is more likely to be NFTs in 2022, until the bigger platforms adopt architecture changes (as Kickstarter is doing).
- I worked with Deep Zen to create an AI-narrated edition of a Co-writing a Book and also A Thousand Fiendish Angels — both of which are clearly marked as auto-narrated and have a badge on the cover, again, for transparency reasons. You can listen to samples at the end of episode 589, or on the audiobook pages on Payhip here.
I’ve published more futurist episodes than I expected because of the acceleration of change. While many of you appreciated these episodes and found them interesting, others didn’t find them so palatable.
In fact, I have received more hate and negativity — through emails, comments, and social media — in the last few months than I have received in my entire author career over these things.
There was even a moment when I thought I might separate out the futurist stuff into another private, paid podcast and website and never mention it again here, but my wonderful patrons — and many listeners by email and comments — helped me see that the information is worthwhile and important to keep sharing.
Change is hard, but it’s also inevitable.
I started sharing my journey here in 2008 in the early days of ebooks, print on demand, and later digital audio and then streaming, and then all the other things. Technology will keep changing and will bring us more opportunity and inevitably more challenge. I’ll keep sharing what I learn and you can expect more futurist episodes — and application of the technology — in 2022.
J.F. Penn — Thrillers, dark fantasy, crime, and horror
I found it incredibly hard to write fiction this year, so it’s not been a stellar year for J.F. Penn! I have journaled a LOT but that is not for publication, at least not for right now.
In terms of new creative works, I wrote Tomb of Relics (previous working title, Day of the Martyr). It was a hard-won book — and turned out as a novella, not a full-length novel — because I am usually inspired to write by my travels, which clearly, didn’t happen.
(My conversation with Becca Syme in episode 572 on strengths helped me understand why travel is so important for me.)
I wrote one new short story which I’ll publish in January (Blood, Sweat, and Flame), and edited and published a story I’ve been sitting on for a few years as it never seemed quite the right time to publish it — A Midwinter Sacrifice.
But being an indie author is not just about producing new work, it’s also about making the most of your intellectual property assets, and being a good publisher.
This year I started doing hardcovers through KDP Print, as well as Ingram. I also published the Mapwalker Trilogy in all the formats, and Tree of Life in audiobook.
I pulled the first three ARKANE thrillers out of ACX exclusivity and took them wide. Plus, I engaged Michaelbrent Collings to help with my fiction book descriptions after his fantastic interview on the topic in episode 591. I’m in the middle of updating all of that through the publishing eco-system.
Books and Travel
My Books and Travel Podcast is now at 76 episodes and this year, I found solace in virtual escape and dreams of travel that the interviews provided me — and from the comments and emails, my listeners found that too. It is a podcast of love and still doesn’t bring me any direct income, because I haven’t written the travel books I intended to, but it has brought me happiness.
I’m also using the site as a blog to share articles and pictures from places I travel, so you can read and see the pictures from the St Cuthbert’s Way, even though I haven’t done a solo episode on it, or written the book yet.
If you’d like some virtual travel, or some musings on the deeper side of it all, just search for Books and Travel Podcast on your favourite app, or check out the backlist at BooksAndTravel.page/listen
Health, travel, walking
In my 2021 goals, I said, “I’m expecting it to be at least a full pandemic year — from March 2020 to March 2021, but I am really hoping to be back in the world in the second half of this year. I'm planning trips to Portugal and Japan, as well as some more ultra-marathons and another walking pilgrimage in the north of England. My plan is to work hard in the earlier months so I can have more time off later in the year for some much-needed travel, family catch-ups, and book research trips.”
Hmm, well, once again, not really as expected — but we made the most of our beautiful country and I appreciate the UK as a holiday destination more than ever! We did the following:
- Cycled from Oxford to Bath through the Cotswolds
- Walked along the Jurassic Coast and visited the gorgeous coastal town of Lyme Regis
- Walked in Puzzle Wood, part of the ancient Forest of Dean that inspired Tolkien’s Fangorn
- I walked the St Cuthbert’s Way from the borders of Scotland across Northumberland to Lindisfarne, Holy Island
- After an incredible amount of stress — and a double dose of bureaucratic hell and quarantine difficulties — we made it to Auckland, New Zealand. It’s a family trip and not a holiday, since my mother-in-law is immune-compromised, so we can’t do much, but it is warm and there is sea and bush to walk beside. Pics on Instagram and Facebook @jfpennauthor
My main financial goal for the year was to sustain The Creative Penn income at a steady level while freeing up time to write the books I want to write, and have time to play with the new technologies — and to do extra podcast episodes to report back.
While still a very good living, my revenue did drop this year — not unexpected given how much work I didn’t do!
I stopped doing webinars and most ads and pulled back on a lot of things, plus I didn’t write many books. I spent a lot of time on things that don’t bring in immediate revenue, but should add revenue streams in the future. I also said ‘no’ to many opportunities for income for mental health reasons, and just because it wasn’t interesting to me.
While I want to continue with the experimentation in 2022, I do want to try and lift my income again, so more on that in my 2022 goals.
Right, that’s about it for 2021. I don’t want to wish the time away, but I am glad the year is over!
I hope that you can look back and celebrate whatever you have achieved — even if that is just making it through alive! Writing remains for all of us a haven for our thoughts, not just words for publication — so I hope you have some time to step back, think and write about the year that is almost over.
If you’d like to share your thoughts, please leave a comment, or blog about it and tweet me the link. I’ll be back soon with my plans and goals for 2021.
John Ravi says
It was a great read! I can understand how this year has affected us all, but after reading your article, I really gained a lot of perspectives. I really learned from the positive attitude you have. I am sorry that you did now have the year you hoped for. Thanks a lot for inspiring people even when you are struggling with your own issues. It really takes courage, It was s great resource, and I really look forward to reading more of your inspirational posts in the future.
Joanna Penn says
Thanks, John — and wishing you a creative new year!
Robin Phillips says
First, I want to say that I was sorry to hear that you’ve had hate mail about your futurist episodes. I really appreciate them and value them. I don’t always agree with your conclusions, but it’s always interesting to hear why you came to them.
I think I’ve done less writing this year, but I did publish. A well known author in my niche wrote the foreword, which I was really pleased about. Even better, he mentions the book on Twitter whenever the subject comes up.
I’ve realised recently that my main marketing is being active where my readers are. That used to be incidental, as I was in those spaces anyway. Now I’m trying to make a deliberate effort to find those places and to be more active there.
At Author Help, we changed from a sole trader a limited company, and my wife is now part of the business. We even got a new logo 🙂
Joanna Penn says
Thanks, Robin, and I love what you’re both doing with Author Help. Long may it continue!
I’m glad you enjoy the futurist episodes, and of course, I don’t expect everyone to agree with me — it wouldn’t be thought-provoking otherwise!
Happy new year 🙂
Helen Parker-Drabble says
Huge congratulations, Jo.
I hope by the time you published this you had a sense of just how much you have achieved in one of your most difficult years. Your sharing your challenges helped me enormously. The way you post about the future inspires me and keeps some of what’s down the road in my awareness, which will no doubt help my development as a new author. I listen and learn. Thank you.
I didn’t complete a revised draft for the first in a fiction series in 2021, but I stayed in paid work despite health challenges and a month off, where I couldn’t do anything, because of a non-Covid-19 virus. But my website looks better than it did at the beginning of the year. My email list has nearly reached 1000 (shout out to Nick Stephenson).
I also published wide – ‘Who Do I Think You Were? A Victorian’s Inheritance’ (book 1/3) in hardback, paperback and large print paperback available everywhere, including my website.
I had hoped to finish a project inspired by a relative’s recipe book started in 1860. But I celebrate I have 25,500 words of the first draft. I was slowed down by agreeing to write an article for a peer-reviewed journal GENEALOGY ‘Special Issue “Focus on Family Historians: How Ancestor Research Affects Self-Understanding and Well-Being”. I’m an independent scholar without a degree and I stalled and doubted my ability to write it many times but behaved as if it was possible as often as I could. The reviewers gave me enormously valuable feedback. I revised the article and had it accepted for publication, just before Christmas. It will be published online open access in 2022 (with me keeping my intellectual property). It came in at 11k words and I plan to turn it into something more accessible for other family historians.
Writing this reminds me I appeared in the ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ magazine, appeared on a couple of blogs and was interviewed by family history royalty Lisa Louise Cooke for the USA Family Tree Magazine podcast. (The Duke of Bedford is also going to read my book and add it to his archive at Woburn!)
I didn’t meet my target for book sales, but I wasn’t far off, and I was able to use the profit to pay for this year’s editing. Twitter and Facebook drives, most of my traffic, but I continue to build relationships in my niche (family history, mental health, epigenetics and neuroscience, and psychology) and I’m looking forward to getting back to my ongoing marketing plan.
Having you as my ‘mentor’ Jo allowed me to go from writing for family to publish worldwide with confidence. 2021 was the year when I finally felt I had reaped what I had sown, and you and your back list made it so much easier than it would have been. Never doubt you are appreciated. You cannot see where all the ripples go, but you are making a significant difference in indie author lives.
I’m in beautiful Marlborough rather than sunny Swindon caring for my dad whose kidneys are failing. It is wonderful that he is still here to see how things are starting to pay off. Now he has no doubt I will succeed at building my brand ‘Who Do I Think You Were?’ as well as having family history and writing assets to pass down.
This evening I start my Trigg diary so bring on 2022. I can’t wait for the next stage of my author journey.
Look after yourself, Jo. See you on the other side!
Joanna Penn says
Thanks so much for sharing, Helen, and it sounds like it’s actually been a productive year for you in many ways, despite illness — and of course, it’s important for us all to remember that sickness is not just about Covid!
Thanks also for your kind words about my ‘virtual’ mentorship — I know that much of what I do goes out into the world and some people find it useful, some don’t — I’m glad it’s been useful for you, and I intend to keep sharing 🙂 Happy new year!
Courtney Kenney says
Thank you for sharing your experiences this year, Joanna. I agree with you 100 percent–it was a much harder year than 2020 in many ways! The ongoing stress and anxiety, numerous covid strains, and general upheaval made it challenging to carry on with the same energy as in previous years. I relate to everything you wrote about not feeling yourself. You are not alone! 🙂
My writing productivity was not what I expected, but I worked closely with a writing team and received tons of feedback which resulted in a substantial up-leveling of my craft. While I only published 1 new book, I wrote in a series that will be published in 2022, and I’m feeling good about starting the new year fresh!
Please keep going on the futurist content. I’m taking your AI course and loving it. Sudowrite is awesome! Thank you!
Joanna Penn says
Thanks, Courtney, and although I’m sorry you also suffered more this year — it’s good to know we’re not alone! Hopefully pandemic year 3 will bring better times. I’m so glad you’re embracing AI-assisted creativity, more to come on that in ’22!
Ellen Bard says
Thank you for sharing your year and being so vulnerable and open about your goals and achievements. Wishing you strength and contentment in 2022, and that you are able to ignore the haters – it’s hard to imagine who could hate on you and I send much virtual support. Being open about your mental health challenges is something that the world can really do with right now, so thank you very much for this too. You set a wonderful example in the writing world. Catch you in 2022, Ellen x
Joanna Penn says
Thanks, Ellen, I know you understand the need for self-care 🙂 Happy new year and maybe see you again in person at some point when the world opens up again …
Debbie Young says
Great round-up, Joanna, and your realistic, pragmatic and honest self-analysis will resonate with us all and help us all, I’m sure.
I’m shocked and sorry to hear your futurist posts have attracted such negativity – although high-tech stuff doesn’t excite or interest me, I’m grateful for all that pioneers like you do in that sector, clearing the trail for the rest of us to follow at our own pace, when we are ready. So please don’t change!
Although so far I’ve been lucky enough to escape Covid (double-vaxxed and boosted, but very conscious that none of us are safe until all of us are safe), I’ve felt very weary throughout 2021, and as if the pandemic has aged me ten years. Although I sleep like a log – and more hours than pre-pandemic – I’ve discovered a really useful tip for sleep issues, which my mother (who turns 88 on New Year’s Eve) suffered from badly after a mini-stroke in the autumn. It’s a SAD lamp – I don’t know whether you already use one, as you are affected by SAD – but using it for half an hour each morning has transformed her sleep from poor quality, interrupted many times each night with long periods of wakefulness, to sound unbroken sleep. Sleep deprivation robs you of so much (which is why it is an effective form of torture), so it’s worth trying anything that restores restful, healthy sleep. I got her a basic, relatively low-cost lamp from Amazon, and she is transformed. So if you haven’t tried it yet, it’s worth a shot.
Wishing you a restorative and fulfilling 2022, and looking forward to hearing about your new year plans.
With very best wishes
Joanna Penn says
Thanks, Debbie, and I appreciate your kind words. My community and many author friends have rallied round in the face of the negativity, and I feel more than ever, that I need to continue to follow my futurist tendencies. So I will keep sharing.
On SAD, I do use a Lumie lamp during winter in the UK.
I do wonder whether coming to southern summer would help with the sleep issues, but it has been worse while I’ve been away — so it’s a combination of many things — which I will be working through in 2022 🙂 Challenges are part of the journey, as I know you know! Hope to see you in 22.
Stanley B. Trice says
From experience, I know it must be hard to deal with the travel difficulties and the health of your husband’s mum. Also, dealing with your lingering health issues. I could say the normal things like “things would get better” and they will. But it does not help at the moment. The future seems like it would be like the present and you know it won’t. Thanks for the podcast to include the new stuff. You provide a benefit to a lot of people.
Joanna Penn says
Thanks Stanley, I feel like 2022 must be better 🙂
Jerry Windley-Daoust says
Joanna, just popping on here briefly to say that I really empathized with what you shared about your struggles this past year. From the outside, just listening to your podcast week to week, you seem to have it all together…and of course, your upbeat attitude and that great laugh also convey an image of smooth sailing for you…and I think many of us do appreciate that (the positive, upbeat vibe) because it’s the emotional encouragement we need to keep going, plus it makes the podcast a fun listen. However, I also really appreciated your vulnerability on this episode and wanted to offer you a word of encouragement and solidarity. You’re doing a great service to the author community, but it’s also wonderful that you’re taking care of your whole self, too. It’s an excellent model for the rest of us. Life is about much more than productivity!
I also personally appreciate the futurist news and episodes. I get the same reaction from family members when I talk about what’s coming down the line…I think the world is changing so quickly, it makes people uncomfortable, but better to know what’s coming and adjust accordingly than to be caught unprepared.
Joanna Penn says
Thanks, Jerry, and although I do share my journey, I like to keep a positive and upbeat energy on the show, even if I am not feeling it sometimes. I’m glad you enjoy the futurist segments, more to come!